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Narmada: Gujarat’s Lifeline or Waterloo?

This bit of prediction by a key government official, who has been associated with Gujarat’s powerful Narmada establishment, struck me. The prediction concerned what is supposed to be the lifeline of Gujarat. This official said, there is “enough possibility” that chief minister Narendra Modi will use Narmada to win the forthcoming Gujarat state assembly elections scheduled for December, may be successfully.
Dishing out figures, he said, thanks to good rainfall, the total “utilizable flow of Narmada water for Gujarat” this year would be 12 million acre feet (MAF) of water, as against 7 MAF a year ago. So far, 5 MAF has been used, and another 7 MAF will be available till June, or the onset of monsoon, which the farmers can easily use at will. This is equal to the total availability of Narmada waters last year, 7 MAF. The plus side for Modi is, the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), responsible to supply water to the farmers, as of today is not allowed to charge a penny from the farmers to use water, being supplied to over 5 lakh hectares (ha) area, where the Narmada canal irrigation network is complete out of a total of 18 lakh ha across Gujarat where Narmada waters are supposed to reach.
There are no plans, either, with the SSNNL or the government to charge anything from the farmers for using Narmada waters. This official told me, every year, farmers would illegally sink long, up to five kilometres, pipelines attached with diesel pumps in the Narmada main canal or its branches, because the canal network to take waters up to the fields is incomplete. This would be done to siphon off Narmada waters to irrigate fields in a very big way -- all illegitimately. In districts like Surendranagar in eastern Saurashtra, things would become so bad that farmers would virtually drain out most waters from the Narmada branch canal passing through the area. For the last two years, under direct instructions from Modi’s office, excessive police patrolling had to be carried out to weed out these pipelines. The reason was, as the farmers would drain out waters, Narmada-based pipelines taking drinking water to Rajkot and other Saurashtra cities, towns and villages would just go dry. In an election year, no such patrolling would be required.
This year, with excess waters in hand, the farmers would be “allowed” to freely use as much waters as they want by sinking pipelines. “The new thinking in the Modi establishment in the election year is, Narmada waters are aplenty, they belong to the farmers, let them sink pipelines, use waters, all free”, the official said. The official believed, what may be a boon for Modi in an election year would prove to be a bane later to whoever comes to power. The Narmada dam will be completed. The current campaign by the SSNNL to complete the canal network suggests it will be a “job done” within two years for most parts of Gujarat, in 18 lakh ha where the Narmada waters are supposed to reach. Today, farmers in areas of Central Gujarat and some other areas, where some bit of Narmada canal network has been partially completed, the farmers are drawing free water, several times more than what they should. They go in for water intensive crops, demand more water at the drop of a hat. Their demand is satisfied for political reasons.
This luxury will have to stop in case one should provide waters to far-off North Gujarat, Saurashtra and Kutch. “If this is done, the farmers who are enjoying waters to earn huge cash incomes will see big holes in their pockets. And if the rate at which the farmers are drawing waters in 5 lakh plus ha area right now continues, no waters will reach arid regions of North Gujarat, Saurshtra and Kutch”, the official said, adding, “Ukai dam in South Gujarat stores as much water as Narmada dam can. But Ukai irrigates just 3 lakh ha, all of it water intensive crops. So, how can you expect 18 lakh ha be irrigated at the current pace?” The official vehemently declared, “Narmada, the current lifeline of Gujarat, is all set to divide the state in regions in case major policy changes are taken urgently. Politically, it will prove to be Waterloo for Modi, or whoever rules the state next year.” Indeed, the talk of conjuctive use of water, worked out years ago, has remained on paper, and appears impossible to implement as of today.
Plans to turn the 18 lakh ha of Narmada command area into a huge drip-and-sprinkler irrigation zone is considered politically insensitive. While the SSNNL has the establishment with an army of competent staff for it, micro irrigation have been handed over to “for experimentation” to Gujarat Green Revolution Company, operating under a state public sector undertaking, and it has little or no clout, not to talk of competency. Thousands of water users associations, necessary to ensure conjuctive use of water, do exist but only on paper. If anywhere they “work,” their main job is to demand -- imagine! -- more water from the Narmada establishment, instead of less, and obviously free of cost. The example of Rajasthan and Maharashtra is particularly being particularly cited to suggest what is lacking at the top policy level in Gujarat.
That Narmada waters have reached, through the main canal, right up to Rajasthan, is by now quite well known. But what is little known is this: Even if small, Rajasthan completed the canal networking in the Narmada command area in South Rajasthan quite early, much before Gujarat could even think of. The Rajasthan government made micro irrigation compulsory, increasing its Narmada command from 75,000 ha to 2.25 lakh ha, and after initial resistance, the farmers have begun to go in for it in a very big way, getting government subsidy, changing life in the arid region. In Maharashtra, the government came up with another scheme -- if you go in for micro irrigation, the surplus water so generated would be allowed to be traded. “This has enthused farmers to go in for drip in a big way”, a senior state technocrat who has studied the two states said.
As for Gujarat, officials admit, things haven’t been even worked out, as the powers-that-be seem to be thinking only politically. The water regulatory authority, which must carry out policy level thinking was set by the state government is recently, but it remains headless. Worse, unlike the Gujarat Electricity Regulatory Commission, the water authority is a toothless body, with no powers to tell the government what it should do and what it should not. It is merely a recommendatory body. What is not understand is, if in Rajasthan the area was quite small, here in Gujarat, a huge region will have to be taken into account. “If the way things are happening are allowed to continue in future, one should not be surprised in case water riots for Narmada break out for what is supposedly a lifeline”, the official said.



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